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Knowledge or skills?

This is a personal opinion but something I have been thinking about for a while. I have taught a number of different science courses and I’ve taught and researched environmental education. One of my biggest goals in these settings is to teach skills. I believe that people need to a) know to ask questions, b) know how to ask questions, and c) be able to critically evaluate answers. However, there is so much content that ends up in any curriculum that it makes it difficult to spend time on skills like critical thinking. So, which is more important?

I agree that there is some base knowledge that is helpful, although I’m guessing I see a lot less as vital knowledge compared to many people. But here’s the thing about science: it changes. I took invertebrate zoology in university, when I later taught the same course I discovered that my textbook, from the course I had taken, was completely out of date. Major classifications had changed. The knowledge was different. As a learner, I am not dedicated to my knowledge; I am dedicated to my skills as a learner. So, I did some research, learned what had changed and why, and updated the course I was teaching.

I guess that we assume that anyone who specializes in a field works to stay up to date, but there are so many examples of people who are, or at least were, specialists in their field until they didn’t stay up to date and were finally pushed aside by someone who did stay up to date. This brings to mind Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Of course, Kuhn himself did not mean for his book to be the final say, his theory, like those in science is meant to be questioned, challenged, and refined (http://news.mit.edu/2012/3-questions-david-kaiser-on-thomas-kuhns-paradigm-shift-1206).

But how can we question what has come before if we are never taught that we should, or given the chance to practice our questioning skills. Collins and Pinch discuss, in The Golem: What Everyone Should Know About Science, how school covers science that we already know the answer to. In this sense, the only question we are taught to ask is why didn’t we get the correct response.

So here is my concern with focusing on knowledge: knowledge changes. On the other hand, skills like critical thinking and questioning will help you find and evaluate each new piece of knowledge.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is necessary knowledge that certain professions need. A surgeon needs to know anatomy, but I also want my surgeon to be able to ask questions, even of his or her own skills and knowledge, so that they never take their knowledge for granted or assume they are right without critically evaluating their approach, diagnosis, and technique.

The same should be said of every person. We cannot all be experts in everything, but we all need to be able to ask the questions that will allow us to be critical consumers of science, and spot pseudoscience before it is too late.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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